What’s Marigold Doing In Dreamy Mexico?

Artist Nidhi Khurana takes the long and winding road to Oaxaca, feeling textures of its diligently-preserved textile heritage. She returns with material, thought and colour for a series of work, from the Mexican region soaked in natural dyes.

The beautiful road swirls through a mountainous terrain and leads us to a magical patch of biodiversity between the states, Puebla and Oaxaca, in Mexico. The road is lined with different species of indigenous cacti – thorny, thirsty and thriving under the sun.

Thorny, thirsty, thriving: Nopal cultivation at a cochineal farm
Thorny, thirsty, thriving: Nopal cultivation at a cochineal farm


We halt at the Museum of Textiles (Museo Textil de Oaxaca) – the institution dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the state’s traditional textiles — since 2006. The Museum conducts workshops for artisans and organises sale of their products through expoventas or curated melas. It has done an extensive survey of the region to create a map that shows the different styles of weaving, embroidery/textile production, embroidery/textile production and style/cut of blouses and huipils (traditional garment). The ancient archaeological sites Mitla, Yagul and Monte Alban surround Oaxaca. The three-dimensional patterns on the walls of archaeological site of Mitla are reflected in textiles from this region.

At home with ‘genda phool’: Museo de Textil, Oaxaca


My search for red has begun. Oaxaca is a special colour in my heart.

At home in Oaxaca: Colour and Cotton

A narrative from India greets me. The exhibition at the Museum displays a Chamba rumal as part of its international textiles collection. The Chamba rumal stirs many emotions on home, stories, colours, craftsmanship and textures. The connecting strands become longer and stronger. I discover Khadi Oaxaca, a label inspired by the homespun cotton of India, at an event at the San Pablo Cultural Centre. Khadi Oaxaca is the brainchild of Marcos, inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi philosophy. Khadi Oaxaca, the brand, is situated in the mountains, on the road leading to the coast, in the remote village of San Sebastian Rio Hondo. They produce natural-dyed and hand-woven cloth and use the design of the wooden charkha, inspired by the Indian version, recreated by the local carpenters in the village.


Indigenous varieties of cotton, including “coyuche”, a kind of brown cotton, are sourced from the different regions in Oaxaca. The cloth produced is sold as yardage as well as stitched into readymade garments — Huipils, blusas (blouses) for women, and garments similar to kurtas and pyjamas, for men. Over 200 indigenous women are part of this cooperative. I meet Marcos and his wife at the San Pablo Cultural Centre where they regularly set up a stall to sell their wares. Marcos has spent time in India studying the spinning and production of Khadi.

Same difference: The artist (left) with a beautiful Mexican lady wearing huipil and blouse.


What makes me feel at home in Mexico? Why did I want to experience firsthand, the rich textile heritage of this region? The answers linger at the Museum and during my travels across Oaxaca, where my journey with natural dyes initiates. In my work, I experiment with new material and combinations, cochineal, pericon, Brazil wood, sapote, tree moss and marigold. In my new ‘Constellation’ series on natural dyes, I start with red.

Oaxaca in work


At the textile museum shop, I have my first glimpse of ‘grana cochinilla’ — source of the red dye that overwhelmed the ‘Old world’ in the 16th and 17th century.

Oaxaca — nestled between the Sierra Madre del Sur and the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca — is a long bus ride away from the bustling Mexico City. I became aware of Oaxaca during a previous visit to Mexico — a haven for textile lovers, well-known for dyeing, weaving and embroidery, the land of the sun (Tierra del Sol). A grant from the Mexican Ministry of Foreign Affairs gave me the wings. In my proposal to the Ministry, I had written fervently about my interest in Oaxaca’s traditional dyeing methods that use indigo, wild marigold and cochineal to create a beautiful range of colour. I said, “I would love to interact with the local artists from Oaxaca, learning first hand some of the techniques, exchanging ideas and information about the Indian textiles and processes. This will be a platform for a rich cultural exchange between Mexico and India through their respective textile cultures.”

Oaxaca in work


Wherever I go in Oaxaca, I seem to stumble upon the cochineal trail. Natural dyes have seen resurgence here in the recent times. I discover that cotton is dyed with natural colours like anil (indigo), pericon, cochineal, sapote etc. My search for the red has begun.

Oaxaca in work


Is it a seed? It’s a bug.  It’s cochineal.

Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus) is a traditional red dye of pre-Hispanic Mexico. It is derived from a bug, Coccidae, cultivated on the prickly pear cactus Nopal. Cochineal, as a source of dye, has a rich history. The trajectory of this little creature is closely linked with the Spanish conquest and the subsequent rule in Mexico. When cochineal was first exported to Spain, the Spaniards could not understand what it was. For a long time, cochineal was considered to be a seed — a product of plant origin rather than insect — and therefore known as ‘grana’ or grain. Cochineal is also used as a food dye. I taste Nicuatole, a local sweet made from corn starch and sugar with a thin layer of cochineal sauce on the surface. The texture of the crushed bug in my mouth is granular and strange.

Grana cochinella


In the ‘History of the Mexican People’, the famous murals of Diego Rivera at the National Palace in Mexico city show women using cochineal-dyed cloth at Tenochtitlanthe’s city market. Tlapanochestli, situated in Santa Maria Coyotepec, another village a few kilometres away from Oaxaca city, is a farm that cultivates cochineal bug as a source for natural dyeing. We take an appointment from Manuel Loera, owner of the farm. The cochineal is actually a bug that infests the prickly pear cactus in the wild. When it is cultivated in a farm, it needs to be protected from the elements. Too much sun or rain destroys the crop. Manuel explains the tedious process of cultivation, drying, sorting, storage and uses of the ‘grana’ cochinella. In the 17th and 18th century, the revenue from the export of cochineal was next only to gold and silver that was carried away in ships by the Spaniards who held the monopoly over this colour for the longest time.

Cochineal-flavoured Nicuatole


With Tania Candiani at MOCA

Cochineal leads me to an exhibition by Tania Candiani at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Oaxaca (MOCA). Tania’s exhibition on natural dyes of the region is focused on the three major colours — red from cochineal, blue from indigo, and yellow from pericon. Her work brings inside the white cube the process of dyeing and weaving in the form of photographs, videos and installations created by using the tools of the trade. A giant vat used to extract anil is created as part of one of the installation. Mortar and pestles made of volcanic rocks used for grinding cochineal invite the viewers to participate in the exhibition. A closed-door food event celebrates the colours of the exhibition. We taste blue huitlacoche (corn fungus), roasted chapulines (red crickets), and yellow corn with green and red salsa.

'Nochezli', an installation by Tania Candiani at the MOCA, Oaxaca
‘Nochezli’, an installation by Tania Candiani at the MOCA, Oaxaca



The magic of dyeing with Tito Mendoza

I am invited to visit Tito Mendoza, his wife and two children at his house in Teotitlan del Valle or the ‘Place of the Gods’ in Nahuatl, the language of Zapotecs. Teotitlan is a village of tapestry weavers, a short collectivo (shared taxi) ride away from the city of Oaxaca. The initial occupation of weaving wool serapes for men and animals was later converted into weaving tapestries and rugs for the American market. Most families in the village have been weavers for generations. Tito gives me my first course in dyeing using cochineal, indigo and pericon.


Tito at work
Tito at work


His studio adjoining the house is a shed with a pit loom at the far end. Tito creates tapestries with wool which are sold at the Santa Fe international handicrafts market or from his shop in Central Oaxaca. The house with a beautiful garden of fruit and flower trees overlooks a hill. It has an open grate for dyeing the yarn, also used for making large batches of corn tortillas. Next to the two-room house is a plot the family uses for growing crops. Tito’s extended family lives in the village. He talks to us in Spanish and his wife Alehandrina (Ale), a city girl, in English. She runs the shop, El Nahual, in Oaxaca.

Cochineal-dyed cloth


We spend the day in Teotitlan, around the grate, dyeing my first batch of cotton cloth in cochineal. It is a tedious process. We spend the time chatting, translating, and using gestures and colors to understand each other. Tito grows and collects his dyes from nature. Indigo for blue is grown locally. Pericon, a weed that grows wild in the village is harvested before October. The Oaxacaneos use cempasúchil (flor de muerto) or the Indian genda (marigold) for a rich golden colour the same way it is used in India, for dyeing. Cochineal is procured from a local farmer and used for dyeing the yarn in shades of orange, red, pink and purple.

The magic of dyes


I buy unripe sapote to dye Indian silk into a lustrous brown from the huge Tlacolula market on a Sunday.

My search for red continues.



Featured image: Cochineal Dreaming, wood cut print and cochineal dyed felt on silk, 81X46 cms. 2016

All Images: Nidhi Khurana